Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express is cinematic comfort food.
The Harry Potter series leaves people yearning for butterbeer and charming magical dormitories. Nancy Meyers films fetishize upper crust Harry & David-esque living. And now, Branagh has managed to take Agatha Christie’s landmark whodunit and spin it into something akin to a warm winter’s eve, or a well-stocked murder mystery party. Art deco lamps, frosted windows, Godiva chocolates, champagne, and the gentle rocking of a luxury steam engine set the stage for perhaps the grandest of Christie’s properties. That’s to say nothing of the tried-and-true structure of the novel, its characters, and its outrageously amiable lead. Archetypes and avalanches, oh my! Surely, that’s worth a ticket to the matinee, non?
Handsomely staged, exceptionally well-cast, and reasonably faithful, Branagh has revived Murder on the Orient Express in a highly pleasing fashion. Sure, some of its modern amenities may leave something to be desired, but this train is quite sturdy and Branagh respects the ride.
For those who forgot the story from their 7th grade English class: Murder on the Orient Express is a tale of exactly what the title declares. The Orient Express was a long-distance train ride that ran from the 1880s on through to the 1960s, hitting stops from Istanbul to London. Here, it’s making a trip in 1934 that eventually halts and transforms into a crime scene. But luckily, this ride has Hercule Poirot (Branagh, starring in addition to directing) on board. Poirot is, as he rather convincingly proclaims, perhaps the greatest detective in the whole world. Don’t worry, he’s not a CBS detective with magic eyes – he’s rationalistic, detail-oriented, and frankly, somewhat cute. Come on, he guffaws at Charles Dickens and playfully chews on English words with his Belgian accent. His doubly curled mustache is the stuff for which Tumblr threads yearn.
Poirot is reluctantly on the case by virtue of being on The Orient Express. The case in question, is the brutal stabbing death of a passenger, Ratchett (Johnny Depp). Now, a thousand pardons; the book is so old and such an institution that the line between spoilers and common knowledge feels a tad gray. In light of this, we’ll give only the film’s broader functions, its key players, and other minor notes on why this movie is mostly worthwhile.
Ratchett is found dead with copious wounds, and traces of Barbital in his coffee, a barbiturate that’s possibly lethal when laid on heavy. Additionally, Ratchett’s door was locked, his car’s window was open, and the train’s staff assert that they didn’t see anyone come or go into his room during the night.
A risky murder, given that Ratchett’s murder occurred right next to Poirot’s bunk, but what are you gonna do? Poirot works doggedly to solve this puzzle, wherein the pieces are all sorts of distinct individuals. There’s Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.), a black doctor who raises the suspicion of others on board because of his skin color. There’s Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), a prim young woman who seems too uptight to be innocent. Michelle Pfeiffer is Caroline Hubbard, a somewhat flirtatious middle-aged ingénue. There’s a Countess (Lucy Boynton), a Princess (Judi Dench), a missionary (Penelope Cruz), a secretary (Josh Gad), and even a shifty-eyed Austrian (Willem Dafoe). The characterizations are brief, but extremely easy to follow. It’s like Clue, but you know, written 50 years before that movie.
As the train is snowbound, the clock ticks, and Poirot must ascertain who killed Ratchett so he can give an official report to the authorities. Poirot must interview each and every passenger. Did Ratchett have enemies? Was there a lone killer, or perhaps two, or three? Is something beyond reality at play here? Simply put: Who done it? It may an old question, but Branagh manages to ask it with such jollity.
If you’ve read the book, all of this recap may feel like filler, but rest assured that Christie’s plotting and revelations hew closely to the book’s structure, and are delivered with care. The mood and tone is a bit looser, and more playful, but one could surmise that it’s not really a detriment. (Fear not, there’s nothing so grotesquely modern as the Imagine Dragons music of the trailers; the movie is suitably old-timey.) Christie’s rigid methodology is broadened ever so slightly into something a tad sleeker. Branagh loves canted angles, creamy sunsets, and snowy vistas, and he manages to make everyone in the cast look like they’re having a great time. It’s the best game of dress-up in a movie this year.
The fun is found in the way Branagh wiggles his gaudy moustache, or how Pfeiffer slinks and purrs with her cocktail, or how Dench unashamedly affects a silly Russian accent. It’s a costume party, plain and simple. Little historical accuracies be damned, this is sensationalist material. And for the purists, the investigation’s logic is not compromised. The revelations are still quite satisfying. Where does this adaptation sit in the pantheon? Why Orient Express now, for this era, in this adequately budgeted Hollywood style? That’s a fair question.
Christie’s novels and short stories have been adapted to death, pardon the expression. Poirot has seen the likes of Charles Laughton, Albert Finney, and even Orson Welles play the mad genius detective. (David Suchet’s ITV version cannot be topped for sheer prevalence and memorability.) So how does Branagh’s take compare? For one, Branagh loves zingers (“The killer is mocking me! Good! His first mistake!” Branagh’s Poirot bellows). He commits to jokey wordplay, with Poirot flustering himself on hard-to-remember words (“This book is full of the, the fudge!”).
Is it wrong that Poirot’s famously uptight egotism is now cheekier and big-eyed in Branagh’s baby blues and camera-ready ponderings? Perhaps that’s for another detective to declare. For now, Branagh’s choices mostly succeed within the confines of this film. Branagh doesn’t seem to want to be the defining take on Christie’s procedural genius. He just seeks an amusing and playful one, and it works. It works in the characterizations, the costumes, the monologues, the piano-and-horn melodies that recall vintage moviegoing. He sets a mood that invites his audience to cozy up for a decent ride.